November 2013 Bar Bulletin
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November 2013 Bar Bulletin

Modern, Not Classic: One Lawyer's Mission To Not Fit In

By Autumn T. Johnson


Going solo early in your law career is certainly nontraditional. Initially, I found myself trying to mask this choice by being as "classic" as possible. I was very hesitant to draw too much attention to myself.

My plan was to look and act like other lawyers. I chose a law firm name that did not reveal at first glance that I was solo, female, young or virtual. I modeled my website off those of other firms. I wore suits to everything, convinced it would help me look more legitimate or credible.

I was doing all of this camouflage, despite the fact that I was in business school. Within the first quarter of my MBA program, it became clear to me that the practice of law had kind of missed the boat.

Most law firms and lawyers I was familiar with were doing things the way they had always been done. The revenue model, personnel policies, pay structure, titles and hierarchy were the same as always.

Businesses were constantly looking to modernize, change things to be more profitable, grow, innovate and lead more effectively. But law seemed to be stagnant, worse even, clinging to the past. I would have informational interviews in law firms in which time seemed to stand still. I could have been sitting in 1950 for all I knew. Everything was the same: the books, the suits, the fake art on the walls, the carpet, the secretary, the offices, the furniture, the firm name, everything. I knew I needed to apply what I was learning in business school, but I wasn't sure how to do it "as a lawyer."

Several months into this classic copycatting, I had an informational interview that changed everything. I sat down with a young, female, solo lawyer who was like me, but more experienced. She also had relocated to Seattle. She had a J.D. and an MBA and she practiced business law, too. But, she wasn't trying to fit a mold and she was quite successful.

She embraced new areas of law before they were areas of law. She didn't feel the need to present a brick-and-mortar office to clients to get them to take her seriously. She met clients at coffee shops, at collaborative workspaces, at their offices. And she didn't wear suits - ever.

She embraced color. She embraced working with other people. No traditional office for her; she wanted to work with her staff in one room around a big conference table with no need for hierarchy or titles. She gave me two important pieces of advice that still guide my actions every day - be authentic and stop surrounding yourself solely with lawyers.

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